How Harvard Can Lead Again

November 5, 2014


Education at elite universities has always been under close scrutiny, but in recent months the attacks have been coming fast and furious—and some even here at Harvard have been on the defensive. On the heels of the heated debate about Ivy League education that William Deresiewicz’s New Republic piece provoked, University President Drew G. Faust made a “Case for College.” Her arguments address a broader crisis in higher education, in which families (and educators) are rethinking the value of a college education.

Harvard is not like most institutions of higher education. But when Harvard acts, others take note. Harvard has the opportunity to set an example of what a college education should be.

I graduated from the College in 2008, and now I am back as a graduate student and teaching fellow in the History Department. Seeing undergraduate education from the TF perspective has been eye-opening. There are many problems I was oblivious to as an undergrad, but the most striking of all is the lack of investment in TF-led discussion sections. In my view, the large size of sections—often 18, not infrequently 20, sometimes even 25—is one of the most blatant signs of Harvard’s failure to prioritize undergraduate education.

A primary metric of undergraduate education sold to prospective students is class size. The Harvard admissions website touts its “small classes,” reporting a median class size of 12, and only 15% of classes with more than 30 students.

But these figures tell us very little about the average student experience. Median class size allows large classes to be ignored entirely. By virtue of enrolling many more students, those 15% of classes make up a much greater proportion of students’ experience. Most importantly, these stats make no mention of the large bulk of undergraduate learning that happens in sections and lab groups, taught by TFs. While Harvard now has 1,574 assistant, associate, and tenured faculty members, Harvard also employs another 1,400 graduate assistants to do most of the day-to-day teaching. It is these TFs who lead discussions, supervise labs, grade assignments and exams, meet with students in office hours, and often write recommendation letters.

Despite the obvious appeal of small classes, the Office of Undergraduate Education sets a “target” of 18 students per section. The implementation of this target was a product of the 2008 financial crisis, when Harvard decided the best way to cut corners was to shift funding away from this central component of undergraduate learning. And it's even worse in practice: A “target” is an average, meaning any individual section could have more than 18. According to an Undergraduate Council survey, 30% of respondents have had sections of 19 or more.

This problem is what inspired a group of graduate students to start the Harvard Teaching Campaign—an initiative to cap sections and lab groups at 12. According to the same survey, close to 90% of respondents believed the ideal section size to be 12 or fewer. Currently, the campaign is gathering signatures to get a referendum question included in the upcoming UC election.

Preserving Harvard’s liberal arts college within a larger research university has been thestated priority of the Dean of the College, Rakesh Khurana. But lately, those arguments have focused on non-academic sides of undergraduate life. FAS approved spending a total of $355.2 million on housing renewal, and $99.8 million in 2014 alone. According to the latest FAS Annual Report, this is the “one of the largest and most ambitious capital improvement efforts in Harvard College history.”

At the University level, Harvard has poured millions into online learning initiatives. But according to multiple studies of its first pilot program in “blended-format courses,” the pedagogical benefits are far from conclusive. In fact, a “key finding” was that students “still wanted in-person interactions with faculty and among themselves. They said that sections—small-group discussions outside the class―were especially vital, enabling feedback, time for Q&A, meaningful collaborations, and a deeper sense of intellectual community.” Students know that there’s no substitute for in-person learning experiences.

As fundamentally and foremost an academic institution, Harvard should prioritize classroom learning. Cost should not be an issue. In fact, I’ll borrow from Khurana, who, when defending the inefficiency of having 12 dining halls, argued, “It’s not about efficiency, it’s about effectivenessIf you understand that, you won’t use minimizing cost as the measure of the value we are creating.” If this holds true for dining halls, it should also hold for section size.

Historically, Harvard has been a trendsetter. It can and should set an example of excellence in education to which others can aspire.

So, Harvard. Set the bar high.  

This article can be found here.